Sunday, November 16, 2008

I'm bad at doing ______ (fill in the blank)

Earlier this evening, our power was out. I sat at the kitchen table and ate my ramen noodles with tofu and egg by candlelight. When I was done, I thought, what shall I do? I only had these little tea lights and they aren't good for reading, no matter how many one uses. So, I used my chopsticks as drumsticks and sang a bunch of songs. I'm not very good at either of these things, but I was having fun.

I used to be self-conscious about my lousy singing. Nowadays, I seem to care little about the things I'm not all that good at. If I enjoy them, I do them. Maybe that's why the nanowrimo is coming fairly easily to me. I'm not judging it. If I wasn't having fun, I'd quit, and I'd say "oh well."

When I told a writing professor I know that I'd been writing 2-4000 words a day, he was impressed. I said, "I didn't say they were good words." And they probably aren't.

But here's the thing: even though I use words like "good" and "bad", it is not a judgment. At least it's not a judgment in the sense of feeling bad about it (there's that word again). I've gotten to this point lately where I feel pretty comfortable with mediocrity or even downright lousiness. When we're kids and we're learning to do new things, we not "good at" the things we do. It's acceptable (to some people). We're kids and we are learning. You don't go from not knowing how to read on day one and being able to read Tolstoy on day two. That is reserved for some very unusual geniuses.

Unfortunately, when I was a child, I was given the message that if one wasn't very good at something, you shouldn't do it. I've written about this before.

I was fortunate to have gone to an Elementary School where, when we were in the fourth grade, we were all asked if we wanted to learn an instrument. It was optional, but in my memory everyone did, though it seemed quite a number of kids picked the triangle. The school gave us an instrument, for free, and also provided free group lessons. Some kids did have lessons at home, which would have to be paid for, but the lessons at school were quite good.

I wanted to learn to play the bass, but I was steered away from that because I was so short, and so I picked the cello. I loved to play. Noone ever had to tell me "Julie, it's time to practice." If it was up to me, I would have played until bedtime and beyond, but my parents didn't want me to play at night.

I loved Bach and struggled hard to try to learn some of his Cello Suites. But I just loved to practice. If it was scales, fine. It didn't matter. The sound of a bowed instrument, a deep one, thrilled me. I was transported. I would completely merge with that cello and its sound. Years after I stopped playing, my childhood friend told me that one time my mother let her in our house and she saw me in my room, playing the cello, and that it scared her. She said I didn't look like a child while I was playing. I was lost in what I was doing and my face was so serious that she left my house without saying a word.

If you were reading carefully, you'd have noticed I said that I stopped playing. There were a few reasons and they aren't happy ones. For one thing, my parents didn't seem to like that I played. I never once heard a thing about my playing from them (except to quit playing at night). Neither of them ever said, "You've improved" or "that sounded good" or anything.

In the orchestra, one was seated according to how good you were. There was 1st, 2nd and 3d cello and all the rest. Well, only three kids played the cello, so I was 3rd. I didn't care. Celloist #1 was a child prodigy who spent half her day out of school studying with someone we heard was famous. She didn't look very happy. And besides, her sister was Violinist #1 and was already playing concerts, so everyone rather thought she was in a tough spot. The second celloist was a gifted young boy, and besides, he was a friend of mine, who seemed to enjoying playing with me at home, even if I wasn't as good as he was. So, I was quite content.

Now, I have to admit I have no memory of my parents saying any particular words, but I knew they thought I was wasting my time. If I couldn't be the best, I shouldn't be doing it. Besides, I had a talent for drawing and I ought to have been doing that. This was the one thing that they were proud of, but they could understand it, because they were both visual artists. Maybe I'd grow up to be more successful then they had been. That's the message I got.

But drawing never gave me the pleasure that playing music did. I loved to draw, but it didn't transport me beyond myself. Sometimes I felt like a peforming monkey because I was talented, and I hated it. When I played music, there were no thoughts of good or bad or talented or not. I was just playing music.

Unfortunately, when grade school was done, the free instruments and lessons ended. That's when the anvil dropped. I was told that I had to choose between renting an instrument and taking lessons. Now, that's not a choice. You can't take lessons if you don't have an instrument, and you can't teach yourself the cello without an instructor (not unless you're a genius, which I plainly was not). So, that was that.

I was given a cheap guitar at the end of the year to make up for things, but classical guitar just didn't cut it for me. It sounded plunky and even when I listened to a master play, it still sounded plunky. So, I wound up being a punk rock guitarist who thought she sucked. Well, that's making a long story short there (which is unusual for me, I know), but you get the idea.

So, these days I'm reveling in doing things badly and enjoying them. There are others who say I shouldn't say I do these things "badly" because I'm putting myself down. I don't agree. I'm being honest. I'm not a novelist and I'm not some genius in the rough. I thought I'd give writing a novel a try and it's good fun. Will I ever get published and get on the best seller list?

I doubt it highly.

I know people have trouble reading my long blog posts. But I'm having a good time and that's what counts. I'm learning a lot, expressing myself freely and even, at times, reveling in doing something I'm not all that good at. So, please, let me say I'm bad at stuff. It feels really good. It feels freeing. There are no expectations when you aren't good.

But I wouldn't mind a little pat on the back once in a while. I wished I had gotten it from my parents when I played the cello. I wouldn't have minded one bit if I grew up to be the very last celloist in some small city somewhere. But no, if I couldn't make it to Carnegie Hall, it was no go. Well, that's a sure fire way to create an underachiever, if you ask me.

Image note: Apocalyptica. Four cellists cover Metallica songs. Once, I was listening to this in my tat shop, when a guy I knew came in. He said, "Turn that classical crap off!" Then he stopped dead, "Is that Enter Sandman?!", he said. The first time I heard it, I couldn't stop laughing. That sounds like a bad review, but it was the cognitive dissonance that got me. Check it out for yourself:

I found the album cover on a sweet little web site made by a young kid (I think). Take a look.

Addendum: Just in case you think I'm a whiner who's still all upset about what my parents did to me (oh, the pain!) I'm not. One remedy for childhood hurts like this is to do them over and be your own parent. Some years ago, I rented a cello and took a lesson. It was fantastic. At the end of the first lesson, I played the first four measures of one of the Bach Suites. And here comes that word: I played it badly. Of course I did! I didn't care a whit. I was in heaven. Unfortunately, my hands were pretty shot from tattooing and I had to leave it at that one lesson. But that was enough. I had parented myself, gave myself permission to try it once again before I dropped dead, and any resentments I still harbored were gone. Well, maybe there's a wee bit. . .

I do feel the need to say this: If you are a parent, if your child is lousy at something and loves it, be happy for them and encourage them with everything you've got.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a post. I'm so glad to hear you say that: before you become good at anything, you go through a period when you are, well not that great. But it all really doesn't matter a long as you're loving it. I can totally relate as I approach life as a process. If you get some good results out of it, well, that's great. But that's a bonus. What's important is to enjoy the process, you know, the thing called living:)
Incidentally, I went to a classical music concert last Friday, for the first time in years and it was awesome!My friend's friend is a cello player and she seemed to be one of the happiest people I've met lately.

Gottagopractice said...

Good on you. (I love that phrase, even though it is not actually a part of my vocabulary.) And never fear, the 'cello is always waiting, patiently.

Julie H. Rose said...


I love the subtitle of your blog, "It's all about the process."

I agree!

Country Mouse said...

Thanks for this very important post Julie. It's all very pertinent to me as I struggle with my drumming. Brad and I were discussing this issue for a few nights running. Don't know what I'd do without this type of feedback from you both. My inner judge and perfectionist is a tyrant. It says "If you're not awesome why bother?" "You'll never be as talented as ________ !" "No one will think you're any good".

My friend Paul (a very talented drummer) put a sign next to his drum kit. The sign reads "Enjoy"!

It may come down to accepting that you do things "badly" or it may be suspending one's expectation of the final outcome. My goal is as you wrote: to "transport me beyond myself."

Julie H. Rose said...

Make a sign of your own. ENJOY is certainly a good one, though.

Kick that tyrant to the curb!